Rachel Griffiths stars in Madam (Photo: Supplied)
Rachel Griffiths stars in Madam (Photo: Supplied)

Pop CultureJuly 5, 2024

Madam is a workplace comedy like we’ve never seen before

Rachel Griffiths stars in Madam (Photo: Supplied)
Rachel Griffiths stars in Madam (Photo: Supplied)

Tara Ward reviews Three’s award-winning new local comedy-drama.

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It’s not often a New Zealand television show wins two major international awards before a single episode has hit our screens, but Madam is breaking all the rules. New Zealand’s latest dramedy premiered on Three last night, just weeks after collecting the Golden Nymph for Best Creation at the Monte Carlo TV Festival and days after winning Best Comedy Series at the prestigious Berlin TV Series Festival. The show is the latest success story to come out of Te Puna Kairangi, the premium fund for international audiences that helped make glossy, well-received television shows like After the Party and Dark City: The Cleaner.

Watching the first few episodes, you can see why Madam won. This bold, funny series is inspired by a true story, and follows exhausted mother and wife Mack Leigh (Academy Award-nominee Rachel Griffiths) as she discovers her husband Rob (Martin Henderson) has been seeing a sex worker. Instead of being angry or upset about his infidelity, Mack is inspired to open her own brothel called Sweethearts, a feminist organisation where sex workers set their own terms without fear of misogyny or violence.

Setting up a brothel in small-town New Zealand is an idea ripe for comedy, and Madam’s cast is one of the most impressive ensembles we’ve seen in a New Zealand drama. Rima Te Wiata steals every scene she’s in, Henderson, Robbie Magasiva and Danielle Cormack are brief but brilliant, and Kura Forrester is a delight as the complaining neighbour. In particular, Ariāna Osborne gives a mesmerising performance as sex worker Tui, whose experience and knowledge is pivotal in making the escort agency a success.

Rachel Griffiths and Rima Te Wiata in a scene from Madam (Photo: Supplied)

The series is in great hands with the rock-solid Griffiths at the helm, known for her roles in Six Feet Under and Brothers and Sisters. In the first few minutes of episode one, Mack discovers her husband’s infidelity, confronts her husband’s sex worker and makes a midnight visit to a brothel where she sits in on a client appointment (sneezing throughout, thanks to the brothel cat). Moments later, Mack is borrowing money to open her own brothel, explaining that she’s spent 15 years supporting her husband and family and now wants to do something for herself.

The feeling driving that decision is something that many viewers will relate to, but most of us aren’t opening a brothel to solve our mid-life crisis. What makes Mack different? Who is she, really – and why a brothel? Madam drops us straight into the drama, but doesn’t give much time and space to allow the audience to get to know Mack better (and not just as a wife and mother). Establishing her character would have made her motivations more believable, and helped us understand exactly what she’s risking. Perhaps in its haste to get straight down to business, Madam skips some all-important foreplay.

Thankfully, Mack is surrounded by a group of intriguing, complex women who bring heart and humour to the show as they join together to make this new business model work. Madam brings new dimensions to sex work rarely seen in television drama, with the women revealing their personal insights about why they choose the job: freedom, flexibility, being seen. It’s a fresh perspective on the oldest profession in history, one that’s often been the target of discrimination and ignorance (and a stark contrast to the sex workers who serve only as nameless victims in shows like Dark City: The Cleaner).

Photo: Supplied

There’s a lot to like about Madam, and it’s a luxury to have ten half-hour episodes to watch it unfold. By episode three, it feels like the show finds its true balance between light and drama, settling into a quirky, thought-provoking workplace comedy. It also feels like an authentically New Zealand show, and one without any sense of cultural cringe or self-consciousness. Madam has a strong sense of self, ensuring that a show primarily made for New Zealand audiences will also have wide appeal for viewers overseas.

Madam shines with a confidence that’s wonderful to see: this is bold, vibrant, self-assured television. On the surface, this is a dramedy about how society views sex, but it’s also about the power of determining your own fate, however unconventional your choices might be. How good that a show like this can screen on mainstream television, challenging our assumptions about the world around us while also making us laugh. Like a sex worker in a dodgy Northland motel, Madam knows exactly what it’s doing.

Madam streams on ThreeNow and screens on Three on Thursdays at 8.30pm. 

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